Before this season, Chris Malone hadn’t fished an FLW event since 2007, when he fished the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit as a co-angler and made the Forrest Wood Cup. In that sense, it’s probably fair to call winning the Toyota Series Championship on Lake Cumberland and $247,500 a pretty serious comeback.
Malone, who took home the $200,000 winner’s check, along with a $35,000 Phoenix contingency bonus, a $2,500 Mercury bonus and a $10,000 bonus for being the top Central Division finisher, stepped away from competitive fishing in 2010 to open a boat dealership. Since then, he’s fished locally with his eyes on eventual retirement, which may just happen sooner than he probably expected just a few hours ago.
Humility is a trait you’ll find in many competitive anglers. Every one of them knows that in order to find success, you need to have a support system – friends, family, even competitors.
In Malone’s case, all of those pillars of support were crucial to his success at the Toyota Series Championship, but none more so than the pillar that is Ryan Davidson.
Davidson, who hails from Branchland, West Virginia and fished the Pro Circuit in 2014 and 2015, bought his first Phoenix boat from Malone in 2015. It was, unbeknownst to them at the time, a pretty fortuitous sale for the pair.
“I didn’t know who Ryan was, and about 2015, when he was fishing the [Pro Circuit], he came to me and bought a boat – his first Phoenix,” Malone says. “We started fishing together and really hit it off.
“Ryan is the best winter fisherman I’ve ever fished with in my life. Ryan taught me how to catch these bass. Chris Malone wasn’t going to win this by himself. Ryan Davidson had an awful lot to do with this.”
So much so, in fact, that Malone made a promise to Davidson, who also fished the Toyota Series Championship and who intends to fish the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit in 2021: With a win, Malone pledged to pay his friend’s Pro Circuit entry fees for next season.
“I honestly thought Ryan would win this derby,” Malone admits. “Ryan was on more fish than I was. Ryan is a better fisherman than I am. He had bad luck yesterday. I told him last night that if something stupid happens and I win this thing, I’m paying his entry fees.
“That $30,000 is a drop in the bucket for how I feel right now. I’m on a high you can’t come off of right now.”
It’s not a matter of “easy come, easy go,” either. Malone values money the way we all do. He just values some things a lot more.
“Money is money,” he says. “Friendship goes forever. No matter what place I get, I’m a winner.”
While Malone may have felt like a winner regardless of his final placement, he truly is a winner right now. Fresh off the win, with little time to ponder the future, Malone is left with quite a few questions he’ll have to answer on his own time.
Firstly: Will he fish competitively in 2021?
“When I saw they were coming back here for the Championship again – after I bought a house down here (in Burnside, Kentucky) last year; that’s going to be a retirement present – when they put the Championship back here, I said I’m going to go fish [the Toyota Series]. I want to see if I can compete. I haven’t competed against these guys for a long time.”=
Knowing he can in fact compete against some of the best competition in fishing now only amplifies the burning question at hand.
“I honestly wasn’t going to fish next year,” he says. “I don’t know. I don’t know how you don’t fish after you just won a quarter-of-a-million dollars. Who knows? Cumberland was the reason I wanted to fish this derby, but Pickwick (the site of the 2021 championship) ain’t a bad pond either. Never say never.”
Regardless of what Malone decides to do in 2021, it’s clear that he’s good enough to hang with – and beat – the best. And whether he fishes competitively or not, the future looks mighty good with another $200,000-plus in the bank for eventual retirement.
How he won
This season was the first full season Malone has fished with FLW in more than a decade, but he certainly didn’t show any rust. He turned in a 30th-place finish at Chickamauga in the Central Division opener, stumbled a bit at Pickwick (with a 76th-place showing) and then capped off the season with a fifth-place finish at Dale Hollow only a month ago to secure his Toyota Series Championship berth.
Since then, Malone dedicated his time to practicing on Cumberland. His goal: Figure out exactly what it would take to win on one of his favorite fisheries on the planet.
“I’ve come down here and practiced for the last three weeks, but we never did great,” he says.
It wasn’t until the official practice period leading up to the tournament that Malone finally got on a substantial pattern that really served as the foundation for his win. It was a pattern predicated on getting ahead of the curve, targeting smallmouth – of which he weighed in 15 this week – hanging out, almost literally, near their wintering haunts.
“These smallmouth right now, it’s not cold enough to push them deep, but they winter deep, so all these smallmouth are up high in the water column,” he explains.
Like so many of his competitors, Malone beat the bank on the main lake near channel swings, but he wasn’t fishing as deep as many others. Instead, he mostly employed a Bad Boy Baits tail spinner to get reaction bites fishing almost vertically, pitching to the rocky shoreline and letting the 1/2-ounce offering fall past the suspended fish in search of a reaction bite. If he didn’t get bit on the fall, he’d give it a couple hops and reel it back in.
Almost all of Malone’s fish came on that tail spinner (he did weigh in three that he caught on a Cumberland staple SPRO RKCrawler), though he did attempt a few haymakers at the end of day three after seeing his co-angler, Matt Greene (who won the co-angler division), catch his winning fish on a glide bait. Malone picked up a Bull Shad and had three fish (including a 6-pounder) blow up on his bait but miss the hooks.
“I went for broke,” he says. “I went to win. Nobody’s ever going to remember who’s second place in this derby. Matt showed me something on that glide bait, so I put the tail spin down and went to go try to catch big ones. I fished to win.”
When Everything Comes Together
Sometimes it’s easy to overlook a story that revolves around so many variables fitting into place as perfectly has they did for Malone this year. It’s sometimes hard to comprehend how talent, luck and the support of friends and family just culminate in a perfect finish. Call it a storybook ending.
In this case, it’s impossible to ignore.
For instance: When Malone decided to fish the Central Division this year, he had to buy a Phoenix boat (having been running the dealer boats in his inventory) in order to qualify for the $35,000 Phoenix contingency bonus. He hedged his bets, bought the boat, and he’s now $35,000 richer than he otherwise would have been.
Take, for instance, the Championship being on Lake Cumberland for the second year in a row – Malone’s favorite fishery, and one on which he’s had a lot of experience. Or the fact that Malone finished fifth at Dale Hollow to clinch his Championship berth. Consider that he was finally in a place with his business where he felt comfortable taking off time to fish the Toyota Series this year.
Take any one of those variables out of the equation and his win probably doesn’t happen. That fact isn’t lost on Malone.
Nor is the beauty of Lake Cumberland, which Malone intends to call his home lake when he decides to retire.
“This lake’s even more dear to me [after winning],” he says. “This will be a retirement place when the time comes. There’s not a more beautiful lake than Lake Cumberland.”
Top 10 pros
1. Chris Malone – Ironton, Ohio – 41 – 0 (15) – $247,500
2. Cameron Lineback – Mount Airy, N.C. – 39 – 13 (15) – $60,000
3. Drew Boggs – Lebanon, Tenn. – 37 – 4 (15) – $30,000
4. Dakota Ebare – Denham Springs, La – 35 – 11 (12) – $35,000
5. Eric Olliverson – Lampe, Mo. – 34 – 15 (13) – $30,000
6. Kurt Mitchell – Milford, Del. – 34 – 12 (14) – $24,000
7. Michael Caruso – Peoria, Ariz. – 32 – 0 (12) – $23,000
8. Trent Palmer – Cumming, Ga. – 128 – 15 (12) – $12,000
9. Hunter Eubanks – Inman, S.C. – 28 – 7 (11) – $11,000
10. Andrew Loberg – Rocklin, Calif. – 28 – 4 (11) – $10,000